Saturday, August 11, 2012

Examining "The Hours"

For the past few weeks, I have been using something to help me get a handle on and find some sanity in the myriad of activities I participate in. For those who are long time readers of my blog, you will know that, while my primary focus is on software testing and learning about software testing, there is a strong undercurrent in my posts that covers topics like motivation, the use of time and "expectational and emotional debt". If that sounds weird and squishy, it's because it is! 

When I refer to time, I don't mean the passing of it. Time is constant and something I have little control over. I don't have the ability to bank time, I can't stretch it, I can't compress it, and make no mistake, there is no way to manage time, either (more on that in a bit). There is only one thing we can do with time, and that is USE IT.

To this end, I do a bunch of things that have me track time, measure time, make quantitative judgements on the time that I use, and how valuable it is (and valuable is, of course changeable with context). What I realized from all of this measuring, though, was that I was getting a list of all the things I was doing, down to the second in some cases, but very little understanding of why I was doing them or what I was actually accomplishing. Take for example Twitter. Depending on what I should be doing at any given moment, Twitter could be the biggest waste of my time imaginable (if I were to be doing a very specific and time bound testing requirement, what am I doing on Twitter?!) or it could be some of the most valuable uses of time during my day. Most of the testing articles, discussions and debates that help lead me to new discoveries and better testing are found on Twitter. This is because 99% of the people I follow on Twitter are software developers and testers. Quantitative tools don't tell you that. Qualitative tools need to do that. But really, there's only one qualitative tool that's going to be effective, and that's my own brain.

To this end, I decided to put something into practice a few weeks ago called "The Hours". I wrote a bit about this last week, but I want to go a little more in depth on it today, since it may be something other people might find interesting or useful. First, "The Hours" exists nowhere digitally. It resides in a single leather bound journal book, the nicest one I own. I dedicated a brand new book to this very purpose. From there, every page looks remarkably similar. It's a listing of hours, starting from 4:00 a.m. and running up until 10:00 p.m. The 18 hours are repeated each day, an I write in each hour what I actually did. Not what I wanted to do, or what I planned to do, but what I really did. Next to each hour, I use three symbols (for now). The first is an asterisk (*). this means I met the objectives I needed to. Nothing special, just that I completed what I aimed for. Other times, I use a frowning face ( :( ). that's to show that I was distracted, or I didn't set out to do what I intended to do. I also use a star for hours where I did more than I intended to do, or accomplished something that was important enough to call out attention to it.

After looking at this, some things are starting to jump out at me. Here's a few takeaways from playing "The Hours" these past few weeks:

1. An hour is a very small block of time. The fact is, it can go by very fast, and unless you make a commitment to be very focused on one task, you can lost the plot and drift very easily. However, it's a very useful yardstick for making progress on goals that require maximum focus. If you can define what you want to do, define what you are willing to give up for that hour to do it, and then make sure the distractions are kept at bay, then you can make real progress on a goal.

2. It's amazing how many distractions we can find. I had intended to work on a coding related issue in a given hour, and while I was doing it, I ended up fiddling with my keyboard layout, checking my settings,  changing my .vimrc file, playing with the settings in tmux to be more effective, looking up the best way to find out how to search for patterns in files in multiple nested directories... and before I knew it, my hour was up.  All of the things I did were wins for productivity and I learned a lot... but I didn't accomplish my actual goal for the hour. In fact, out of the hour, I ended up spending 10 minutes doing actual coding!

3. Scheduling is less effective that I thought it would be. I thought that, if I carved out blocks of time for specific tasks, that I would be more likely to do them and be effective. In truth, the opposite was the case. It seemed that something would either contradict or conflict with the time I decided to do something. The more onerous the task, the less likely the scheduled block would take place. Instead, I found that snap decisions and carving out time right then and there was the most effective. Instead of waiting until 4:00 p.m. to write a report or work on a presentation, I would say "it's 10:00 a.m., and I have some breathing room. Let's hit that presentation... NOW!" and then jump into it. If I did that, I was much more likely to make real progress. Which leads to...

4. Begin with the end in mind. Sometimes there are things that just need to be done, and we need to make the commitment to decide what that thing will be, what we will not do to make sure it happens, and then dive in to do something about it. Even then, we may find that our brain wants to wander. We struggle with the time we have set, and we find that we just can't hold on, no matter how hard we try. Give yourself permission to drift. Just a little bit, but yes, allow some randomness during that hour. Here is where a Merlin Mann style "Procrastination Dash" approach works wonders. In this case, set a timer for 10 minutes, and every ten minutes, allow your brain to drift for two minutes, and then get back to the focus for ten more minutes. Do this five times. Let your brain explore during those two minutes, but remember what your main goal is, and get back to it.

5. Splitting up tasks is much more effective compared to plowing through. Sometimes, this is not practical. If you are replacing boards on your deck or painting those replaced boards, you have to finish what you start, "The Hours" be damned. For many things, though, splitting up the task and working on something else allows the brain to rest, process, and organize what it needs to do. I often find that splitting up a heavy mental task with doing something physical (writing a paper for one hour, then organizing the garage for another hour, and then getting back to the paper) I get more done in both areas by splitting up the tasks. I think, again, it's allowing the brain some time to process what it was doing that makes this approach effective. It also makes the progress that much more tolerable (and therefore faster) for both jobs.

6. Slice your objectives as thin as possible. I'm stealing this from agile software development methodology, but I've found it works pretty well. If a task can't fit into an hour, chances are you've got too fuzzy of an understanding of what you need to do.  Get more specific. Put more of a focus on the particular tasks that need to be done. Instead of saying "write a paper about x", set that hour for "review articles or blog posts that would be reference material for x" or "write the first draft of my introduction for x", something that, again would effectively sit within an hour and be accomplished in that time. Like stories in agile development, many small stories make a release, and many releases make an epic. Don't try to accomplish the entire release at one sitting. Make a pace that is reasonable and obtainable, and for me, one of the best ways to do that is to get specific.

7. Honor thy energy and be deliberate with your choices. While I have entries for 4:00 am, I don't use them every day. There are times where the most important use of my time is to say "sleep", and mean it. Another important use of my time is to say "visit with friends" or "read from a magazine purely for pleasure" or "watch Anime with my kids"... and be totally OK with that. I have several entries that say exactly those things, and there's a smiley face next to them. The reason is because they were deliberate choices, made at that moment, an I wrote down the intention and honored it. While it's entirely possible to get into gratuitous and totally selfish uses of time this way, I've discovered it doesn't happen very often.

It's been an interesting experiment, and one that I have every intention to keep doing. As I go through the process, I may come across additional insights and interesting things I discover. Make no mistake, if I find something interesting, I will share it here.

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